CHARLOTTE – After the second play of the second half, Panthers defensive end Charles Johnson was writhing in pain on the field.
He pounded his fist on the turf as athletic trainers rushed to his side to tend to his injured knee, and moments later, Carolina's sack leader was carted off the field.
"It hurt," Johnson said. "I guess (Patriots offensive lineman Marcus Cannon) leg whipped me from what people are telling me. He came and apologized to me after the game. Part of football."
The Panthers had to play on without the leader of the defensive line. They weren't quite the same.
"You could tell when he got hurt the wind went out of our sail a little bit on the defensive side," head coach Ron Rivera said. "He is such an integral part of who we are and what we've done."
New England produced an 80-yard touchdown drive to start the third quarter and tie the game at 10.
The Patriots manufactured another 80-yard touchdown drive on their next possession to tie the game at 17.
After giving up just a field goal in the first half, the Panthers' defense didn't seem to have an answer for Tom Brady and the Patriots. Rivera described it as an unacceptable lull for his defense.
"We are better than what we are showing," Davis recalled telling his teammates. "We knew the game was going to come down to us. We knew we had to go out and get a stop and get the ball back to the offense. That's what we were preaching."
The Panthers defense then took the field with New England starting a drive at Carolina's 39-yard line.
The Patriots drove to the Panthers' 8-yard line and faced third-and-one. Brady faked a handoff and looked for fullback James Develin in the flat, but the Panthers had the play well covered and Brady was forced to throw the ball away.
New England settled for a 26-yard field goal.
"We had to get squared away," defensive tackle Dwan Edwards said. "They had some success running the ball on us. The problem was mainly our fits and missed tackles. We had to refocus and stick together."
After Ted Ginn recaptured the lead for Carolina with a 25-yard touchdown catch, it was up to the defense to close out another narrow victory.
And when they took the field with 59 seconds left, Johnson lined up at his usual defensive end spot to help close out the game.
"To see him come back, it gave us a boost," rookie defensive tackle Kawann Short said. "If Chuck can do it when he's injured, we have no choice but to go out there and get a win."
Said Edwards: "It gave us a little something extra knowing that one of our leaders was back out there."
That little something extra was a big help, even if Johnson wasn't at full strength.
"I couldn't turn the edge like I wanted to. I told them I was going to push the pocket," Johnson said. "It's hard for me to sit on the sideline and watch the guys try to fight without me out there. I was determined to get back out there no matter what. I needed to test it out, and it felt good enough for me to pass rush."
On the first three plays of the final drive, Brady threw three incompletions, two of which were forced by pressure.
Brady went 4-of-11 on the final drive, throwing more incompletions (8) during that possession than he had the entire game prior (4).
"We got a lot of heat on him on that final drive," Edwards said.
Still, the Patriots managed to march to the Carolina 18-yard line for a final play with three seconds left.
That's when rookie safety Robert Lester intercepted Brady's pass for tight end Rob Gronkowski in the end zone. And for the second consecutive game, the Panthers defense closed out a victory with an interception.
"We had a real big learning curve as far as finishing games the last couple years with us not being able to come up with the stops we needed to win games," Davis said. "We made sure they didn't get in the end zone tonight."